Review: Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite

Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of MonstersMedusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had really looked forward to this book. Mythical monsters plus informative history, what’s not to love? I bought it for my husband as a gift and was delighted when I found it idling on his nightstand. But now I see why. It’s interesting in places, sure (hey, wanna read some kooky accounts about real zombies? I know I do!) but it’s a struggle to hold your interest. The story is artificially paced (why start an explanation with the wrong answer only to correct it a page later?), leans heavily on modern movies, and cherry picks when it will refer to social sciences.

If you love mythical beasts and know much about Greco-Roman literature, you’re going to come away from this book bored and/or annoyed.

The problem seems to stem from author Matt Kaplan’s unyielding insistence on two things: 1) all mythical beasts must be directly related to something observed in the natural world, and 2) once science has a logical explanation for something, it ceases to be frightening. I disagree with him on both counts.

While I agree that the original storytellers probably did see something that sparked a story in their minds, I disagree that there has to be some kind of one-to-one relationship. For example, Kaplan explains in length that massive boar mentioned in Greek mythology probably never existed, that there is no evidence of an actual super-boar who was impervious to weapons. I believe I speak for all the readers when I say: “no shit.” But why would there even have to be? Is it such a stretch to believe and accept that a creative thinker might have concocted the story entirely?

The boar and the Nemean lion, are, of course, just the most basic examples. I don’t need to believe anything remotely chimeric actually existed for me to believe that a storyteller could come up with the idea. Why the concept that a person found a pile of mismatched fossils in a stream bed and came to believe it was a terrible monster, is it not just as plausible that a storyteller looked around and invented the creature from the characteristics of other natural beasts? That perhaps this explanation came not from literal physical creatures but from symbolism? (Medusa is a great example as a symbol: a woman so beautiful she attracts a god’s unwanted assault is reborn–hence snakes–into a monster who drives all men away and can destroy them with but a look. We don’t need actual snake-haired people!)

I guess I’m offended that Kaplan has left so little room for human ingenuity. Particularly when there is so much evidence of it all around.

My second issue is that he believes people aren’t afraid of monsters that no longer seem realistic thanks to scientific discoveries. Perhaps they aren’t as prominent as monsters as we discover new things to be afraid of, but that discounts the many people who ARE afraid of those things and context. What do I mean by context? I mean, yes, if you ask me in the middle of the day what I’m afraid of, a big scary animal is not going to be the top of my list. But you bet when I’m in the dark in the woods I suddenly begin imagining I’m being stalked by a huge and terrifying predator (despite knowing full-well in my human brain how unlikely it is that a tiger is stalking me in the parking lot). Most irksome is that Kaplan’s evidence for the lack of fear-factor is overwhelmingly modern TV and movies. … Except he’s not watching the same stuff I am, apparently. I mean, Supernatural has many frightening episodes and chilling stories, for example, and I know it’s fiction. Just because Twilight told a different, non-scary story about vampires does not mean that the vampires in True Blood aren’t decidedly scary (ok, in moments. That show is all over the place). And Interview with a Vampire, which he cites in the book, was quite scary to me!

So I don’t know. I think this book might be a good lazy read for a TV and movie buff who has a light interest in Classics, or maybe for the Classics nerd who wants something different. But I don’t recommend seeking a deep understanding or passion from this monster montage.

View all my reviews


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